October 15, 2017

Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14

“Dressed and Ready for the Feast”

Join with me if you remember this song based on Luke’s version of the Parable of the Great Banquet: I cannot come. I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now. I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow. I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum. Pray, hold me excused, I cannot come.

It’s a catchy little Sunday School song that captures the joyful spirit of Jesus’ parable as it is recounted by the author of Luke’s Gospel. Sure, some of the people who are invited to the Great Banquet send excuses and they miss out on the party. But when some of the expected guests send their regrets, the host sends out invitations far and wide. He sends his servants out into the streets – to the highways and the byways and compel them to come in. My table must be filled before the banquet can begin.

When we read the parable or sing the song we are reminded of God’s wide and gracious welcome to all people. There are no pre-requisites for getting an invitation, and the meal is free. And as we celebrate the good news of God’s gracious welcome to us, we are challenged to consider the times and ways in which we let other things distract us from spending time with God.

But Luke’s version of the Parable of the Great Banquet is not the one we heard this morning. And there’s no fun kids’ song version of the troubling account we read today from the Gospel of Matthew.

It starts off along the same lines, of course, with Jesus telling a story. This time, the “someone” putting on the dinner is a king, and it’s supposed to be a wedding banquet for his son. Just like in Luke, he sends out his slaves to invite the wedding guests in, and the people refuse to come.

He sends them out a second time, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

But instead of just singing, “I cannot come. I cannot come to the banquet…” some of them go on with their farming or their business, while others seize the slaves, mistreat them, and even kill them!

Not surprisingly, the king gets angry. But most of us are shocked when the king sends his troops to destroy the murderers and burn down their city. Wow! This wedding celebration has turned into a bloodbath!

Like the other version, the king then sends out his slaves again (I guess, the ones who hadn’t been killed on the last assignment) and he gets them to invite all the riff-raff into the party. They go out into the streets and gather everyone they can find, both good and bad, so the wedding hall is filled with guests.

Okay, we’re back on track with the story. The king invites everyone (good and bad) to come to the feast. Anyone who is willing to attend is most welcome, and the celebration begins. But soon there is more trouble. The king comes in to see the guests, and he notices a man there who is not wearing a wedding robe. Oh no! This guy isn’t dressed properly for attending a wedding!

The king questions him, “How did you get in here without a wedding robe?” But the man has no answer. So, the king has him thrown out. He gets his slaves to tie him up and throw him out… not just out of the banquet hall, but out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”!

You see why they chose the other version from Luke when they wrote that happy little song for the children? But this version is in the Gospels too, so we are challenged to consider what it means and how it also might be good news for us.

I think that the first thing we have to notice and remember is that this story is a parable. It’s not a story about something that happened, but it’s a made-up story to make a point. And this one is quite clearly an allegory, in which the various people and events in the story represent something else.

We catch on quickly to the idea that the king represents God, and perhaps it’s fairly obvious that the king’s son is Jesus. The wedding banquet is the Kingdom of God that prophets announced and Jesus inaugurated.

The slaves must represent the prophets who brought God’s message out to the people of the earth and invited them into relationship with the one God of the universe. Some of them were mistreated and some were even killed, and I expect that God was pretty angry about it.

The late first-century Jewish Christians who first read Matthew’s Gospel wouldn’t have been surprised by such violence in the parable, as there was violence all around them in the world as well. They would remember how their own people mistreated the prophets that rose up among them, and how Jesus himself was rejected and killed.

They would have been very aware of the violent destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, and they might well have interpreted that event as God’s wrath executed against those who had rejected the invitation to join in the Great Feast with Jesus. So, that likely explains why the king in the parable sends his troops to destroy the city of those who refused to come.

But what do we do about the man who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe? Who is he? And why is the king so harsh towards him? Why would God be so harsh towards someone that he invited and who said YES. We know that God is all about welcome and grace. The good and the bad are invited into the banquet, and it seems that many of them get to stay.

But GRACE is not the same thing as “it doesn’t matter how we live.” Grace means forgiveness, combined with a call to live differently and to do better. Grace means getting another chance to be good, and do what is right, and live well as God intends us to do.

Think about the story we heard this morning from the Book of Exodus. The Hebrew People in the wilderness turn away from God and begin to worship idols. By melting down all their jewelry, they build the classic “golden calf” and worship it as if it is their god.

And God gets angry! God’s wrath burns hot against them. God gets so angry that he thinks about wiping them out and starting again to build a nation of people, maybe just from Moses who was faithful to God. Fortunately for them, Moses convinces God to give them another chance. God’s grace abounds, and another chance is given. But it doesn’t change the fact that the way they were living was wrong, that it was evil, and that it made God really, really angry.

So, let’s talk about that man who didn’t put on a wedding robe. One thing that I am quite sure of is that the story is not about what we should or shouldn’t wear to church. We don’t need to be kicked out if we show up in something less than our “Sunday best,” or if we don’t wear the traditional attire of our fellow church members or the generations before us.

The story is an allegory, and the wedding robe represents something other than appropriate clothing for the people of God. Now, not all the Bible scholars are agreed on the meaning of the wedding robe, but some suggest that it may be about doing good works.

We’re invited into the banquet that is the Kingdom of God. We get to come in whether we’ve been good or bad, but once we’re there… once we’re here in the community of Christ’s followers, we need to start acting appropriately. At a wedding banquet in the first century, all the guests were supposed to wear a special garment for the occasion. In the Kingdom of God, God’s people are supposed to live together in love and peace and kindness and patience and humility and generosity with each other and with their neighbours.

If our lives don’t change… if we keep on lying and cheating and gossiping and being selfish and conceited… we don’t belong in the Kingdom of God, do we? Of course, it’s not up to US to judge one another, but God does, and God demands that we change our lives!

I came across a reflection by another pastor online a few weeks ago, and I flagged it as something to read a little later when I had time. It was titled, “Tolerating Bad Behaviour in Church,” and she suggested that church communities should stop just accepting and living with bad behaviour.

She mentioned things like when people demand to have their personal desires met over and against the church’s mission… when folks spread conflict and negativity instead of dealing directly with the person who is frustrating them… when members circumvent the accepted governing and decision-making structures to push a personal agenda… when people use bullying behaviours like name-calling, verbal attacks, or gossip against their fellow church members… or when they withhold money as a way of pressuring the organization into giving them their way.

There are articles about these kinds of things online because they are not unusual things to find happening in our church communities. We are human, and we’re not always perfect angels. But we are in the church, folks! We’ve been invited to the great banquet in the Kingdom of God, and we’ve got to start acting like that’s where we are!

Back the parable: You may still be wondering about that man who gets kicked out. What if the man didn’t have a wedding robe? What if he couldn’t afford one? After all, he was practically dragged in from the streets! Is it realistic to expect that he would be prepared with the right gown for the occasion?

Well, some of the biblical scholars suggest that if you were invited to a wedding banquet thrown by a king, the proper gowns would have been provided for you. As you came into the hall, it would actually be handed to you. All you had to do was put it on!

Thinking allegorically again, some of the biblical scholars suggest that the wedding robe represents the people of God “putting on Christ.” You may have heard that expression before in one of the letters by the Apostle Paul. At Romans 13:14 we read that we must “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and at Galatians 3:27 we read that because we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ.

By this reading, the wedding guest who is cast into the outer darkness receives this judgment because he has refused to be clothed with Christ. He is clothed in his natural clothes, as it were.

And, of course, we should be reminded of that Christian tradition that I talked about with the children this morning – the practice of putting on a clean, new white garment after being baptized. That tradition follows Paul’s idea that baptism not only washes and cleanses us from our sin, but that through baptism we are clothed with Christ and equipped to live a new life in Christ.

Every single one of us in invited into the wedding banquet which is God’s Kingdom here on earth and in the world to come, and by virtue of our baptism we are “clothed with Christ” and equipped to live transformed lives of love and service.

Our baptism is not just something that happened to us in church many years ago, often when we were infants or young children. But God desires that we “live out” our baptism, that we live as people who know we belong to God, whose lives are transformed by our identity as Christ-followers, as people who have “put on Christ” and live differently because of it.

Think back to the guest who didn’t put on a wedding gown. He was at the party, but he hadn’t truly joined in. He hadn’t truly committed to what that banquet was all about. Likewise, we are invited to fully immerse ourselves in the Kingdom of God which is coming in Jesus Christ. We are invited to get dressed for the occasion, to allow ourselves to be “clothed with Christ,” and to let our lives be transformed by our new identity.

Living together in community is not always easy, and we won’t always be able to act appropriately through our own efforts and strength. But the gift of our baptism, the gift that we received when we arrived at this party, is that we don’t have to do it all by ourselves.

Let us rejoice today because every one of us has been invited to God’s great banquet, and every one of us has responded with a YES. Let’s receive the gift of our special attire and “put on Christ,” and get down to the business of feasting, and dancing, and singing, and enjoying the wonder of this celebration with God.